Capitol Hill Week February 13, 2020

Legislation stiffens penalties for those convicted of drug-facilitated sexual assault

Contact: Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email: darlene.schlicher@capitol.tn.us

For Immediate Release: February 13, 2020

NASHVILLE -- Senate Committees worked at full steam this week as state senators examined the budgets of 16 agencies and departments of state government and approved a number of important bills. The budget hearings, which will continue through March 11, are part of the process of reviewing how taxpayer dollars are spent to determine if the money is being used efficiently and effectively to meet the state's goals. They also provide lawmakers with an opportunity to talk with state officials about a wide variety of important state issues.

Among important bills advancing through Senate Committees this week is a proposal to strengthen penalties for those convicted of drug-facilitated sexual assault. Senate Bill 2000, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), would add a qualifying category to Tennessee’s aggravated rape laws when a defendant gives a controlled substance or narcotic drug to the victim for the purpose of rendering them incapacitated or unconscious. These substances make it easier for a perpetrator to commit sexual assault because they inhibit a person’s ability to resist and can prevent them from even remembering the assault.

Currently, the crime is punishable as a Class B felony with an average 6.48 years in prison. The legislation would stiffen penalties to a Class A felony, which carries an average sentence of 28.69 years behind bars.

“This legislation should serve as a warning to offenders that they will be held fully accountable for this despicable crime of sexual violence,” said Sen. Bell.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are no conclusive estimates as to the number of drug-facilitated sexual assaults that occur each year; however, nationwide law enforcement reporting indicates that the number of such assaults appears to be increasing. Many drug-facilitated sexual assaults are not reported. Victims often are reluctant to report incidents because of a sense of embarrassment, guilt, or perceived responsibility, or because they lack specific recall of the assault.

Judiciary Committee members also approved legislation to add a member of the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) to the Human Trafficking Advisory Council. Over the last two years, TABC agents have been instrumental in identifying and cooperating with local authorities to halt several cases of human trafficking in Tennessee. Senate Bill 1731 is sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville).

State legislators have approved a series of bills over the past eight years addressing the problem after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders. These legislative efforts earned Tennessee Shared Hope International’s highest ranking in the nation for fighting human trafficking.

Senate Commerce Committee hears update on successes in state’s TennCare program and recent developments on the Medicaid block grant and Katie Beckett waiver proposals

TennCare Director Gabe Roberts appeared before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee this week to present his department’s budget and talk about the program’s recent successes. Roberts also updated lawmakers on the status of the state’s Medicaid block grant and Katie Beckett waiver proposals, both of which are currently pending approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

According to a Pew Trust study, TennCare outperformed other states in several categories. This includes reducing the number of opiate-addicted babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).  In 2018, there were 205 fewer NAS births in Tennessee, the largest reduction in the nation.  Roberts said TennCare is working hard to fight Tennessee’s opiate epidemic with 175 dedicated health care providers serving approximately 6,000 patients through a high-quality treatment network.

Another success for the program is the state’s TennCare Connect, which is an online tool for Tennesseans to apply for TennCare, CoverKids and Medicare savings programs. The program won a 2019 State Experience Award which recognizes the achievements and best practices of states, cities and counties that have gone to the web and beyond to radically improve the experience of government and push the boundaries of how citizen services are delivered.

TennCare’s Employment and Community First CHOICES program also garnered high accolades from industry experts, being called “a model for other states considering a transition from fee-for-service to managed Medicaid for beneficiaries with disabilities.” The program offers support for families caring for a person with an intellectual or developmental disability. Its goal is to help people achieve employment and independent living goals.

TennCare outperformed all other states in limiting the growth of the share of the state budget going to support Medicaid. Roberts said that if TennCare’s trend rate had tracked equal to the national Medicaid state average rate since 2012, Tennessee would have spent a cumulative total of $1.6 billion more state dollars to run the current program. The state realized significant savings while receiving positive feedback from enrollees. Ninety-four percent of recipients report satisfaction with the program.

Tennessee’s success in innovating health care improvements through its TennCare program is a key reason for passage of legislation last year asking the federal government for flexibility through a Medicaid block grant waiver. The block grant amendment was submitted to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on November 20th.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of the block grant,” said Roberts. “I think we have an unprecedented innovative proposal that is a combination of our work together with the administration and the legislature.”

Roberts said based on conversations with CMS, the state’s block grant proposal will not be impacted by recent guidance from the Trump administration on their Healthy Adult Opportunity (HAO) demonstration initiative. The HAO program is focused on adults under age 65 who are not eligible for Medicaid or a state plan based on disability or their need for long term care services and supports. He said, “Based on conversations that we have had with CMS and based on understanding CMS practice, our plan will get its day with and is not impacted by the recent guidance that CMS put out around block grants.”

Roberts also updated committee members regarding the Katie Beckett Waiver Amendment passed by the legislature last year which created a program for at home care to help children with severe and medically complex disabilities. A waiver must be approved by CMS before the program is implemented. Roberts said TennCare had extensive stakeholder engagement, including a technical advisory group of family, clinical and advocacy experts. The waiver was submitted to CMS on September 20th and Roberts was optimistic about its outcome. TennCare has been working collaboratively with the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD), contractors, and external stakeholders to prepare for implementation once approval is given.

Resolution calls for aggressive action to address Asian carp invasion in Tennessee waterways

A resolution asking the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and other federal authorities to join Tennessee in “aggressively addressing the Asian carp invasion on Tennessee waterways” was unanimously approved by the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week. Senate Joint Resolution 723, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), recognizes the urgency of the infiltration of the invasive fish into Tennessee’s lakes and rivers, its negative effects on the ecosystem, and the disastrous economic consequences to the state if the problem continues to accelerate.

“The fundamental purpose of this resolution is to bring recognition to the urgency of this problem,” said Sen. Yager. “Aggressive measures must be undertaken to prevent Asian carp from ruining our ecosystem, fishing, and recreational boating if we as a state do not respond. Robust federal intervention is essential, with additional resources needed to help prevent the fish from spreading further.”

Tennessee is an active participant in the Mississippi River Interstate Cooperative Resource Association, an organization of 28 states and federal agencies that are working together to lobby for additional carp management funds.

Yager suggested erecting a barrier at Nickajack or Chickamauga Dam as a means to stop the spread of the fish upstream. “The Asian Carp have made it this far, and candidly, we were shocked to know that some have been found in Chickamauga Lake. We want to stop it there so Chickamauga, Watts Barr and Loudon Lakes are not spoiled by this infiltration,” he continued. 

Sen. Bill Powers (R-Clarksville) said Asian Carp have both ecological and economic impacts on his communities in Tennessee. Powers said the problem has led to declining lake home values and to smaller annual fishing tournaments, which are important to local economies. “It is a huge problem for the state of Tennessee. I just can’t state it loud enough. We need immediate action to address it.”

All species of Asian carp that have entered Tennessee waters compete for space with native fish species, with some reaching 100 pounds. The bighead and silver carp compete with native fish species for food by consuming microscopic algae and zooplankton. Black carp may eat many species of snails and mussels that are native to Tennessee, while grass carp eat vegetation that provides cover for sportfish such as largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill.

Upon passage, the resolution will be sent to the President of the United States, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Tennessee’s congressional delegation, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Valley Authority’s Board of Directors, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army of Engineers, and other affected state and federal agencies.

The resolution now moves to the Senate floor for final approval.

Senate acts to give voters an opportunity to embed the state’s Right to Work law into the state’s constitution

The State Senate gave final approval to a resolution this week allowing voters to embed the state’s Right to Work (RTW) law into Tennessee’s Constitution. Senate Joint Resolution 648, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Lt. Governor Randy McNally, Senate Republican Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) and 19 other members of the Senate Republican Caucus, protects the right of Tennesseans to join or refuse to join a labor union or employee organization, saying it should always be a “fundamental civil right.”

“This amendment will guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union,” said Senator Kelsey.

Currently, there is legislation at the federal level seeking to undermine all state RTW laws, among many anti-business provisions. This includes the PRO Act bill which was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives that would eliminate RTW laws enacted in 27 states.  Nine states have already acted to adopt RTW constitutional amendments.

In addition, there are moves to repeal RTW laws at the state level. There is an effort in Virginia to abolish their law which has been on the books since 1947, the same year Tennessee enacted its law giving workers a choice.

The resolution now goes to the House of Representatives for their approval. The resolution must pass the General Assembly by a simple majority this year and by a two-thirds majority during the 2021 or 2022 legislative session in order to appear on the ballot for a statewide referendum in November 2022. The amendment would become part of the state constitution if adopted by a majority of votes cast in the governor’s election.

In other news…..

Integrity of Tennessee Election remains top priority of state’s election officials -- Voter security and the integrity of Tennessee’s election process continues to be a high priority for state election officials according to Secretary of State Tre Hargett who presented his department’s budget to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee this week. Hargett, whose office oversees elections, told lawmakers they are focusing on both cybersecurity and physical security, taking numerous steps to ensure fair and accurate elections. This includes conducting tabletop exercises on both the state and local level, issuing $25,000 in election security grants to counties in the state, and conducting training to prepare local election officials for potential ransomware attacks or other cyber threats. Tabletop exercises are role-playing simulations that provide participants with tips, tools, and training to fortify their election systems against cyber attacks and information operations. 

Hargett said Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins is poised not only to ensure the integrity of elections inside the state, but serves on a national council for critical infrastructure to protect voting security nationwide. “That’s a great source of pride for us, but also a great opportunity for us to have access to information for us to protect the infrastructure of our elections in Tennessee,” Hargett said. “We just recently returned from Washington, D.C. where we participated in a tabletop exercise with other secretaries (of state) and election officials from around the country to make sure we’re prepared for anything that could happen.” The statement came a day ahead of the start of early voting for Tennessee’s March 3rd Presidential Preference Primary which began on Wednesday.

Legislation aims to make Tennessee a model employer for people with disabilities -- Legislation which aims to make Tennessee a model employer for people with disabilities was approved on final consideration by the Senate on Thursday. Senate Bill 1642, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), affects the Community Rehabilitation Agencies (CMRA) of Tennessee, a non-profit agency which advocates for increased opportunities for employment and advancement for Tennesseans with disabilities.

The agencies work with disabled Tennesseans and private businesses to fulfill state and local government contracts by employing people with disabilities. The proposal brings CMRA in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition regarding disabilities and ensures that affected workers receive at least minimum wage and the same benefits as other employees.   It also enhances and expands competitive and integrated employment opportunities for Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Finally, the legislation sets up a mechanism for local approval for local contracts and cleans up state statutes to be consistent with current practices of the program and its advisory committee. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for approval.

Senate passes resolution requesting a ‘wellness check’ on pharmacies – A resolution promoting patient safety in the work environments of Tennessee’s pharmacies was adopted by the Senate this week. Senate Joint Resolution 505, sponsored by Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), asks the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy to study the overall health of pharmacies to determine if rules should be promulgated to ensure productive, efficient, and safe work environments which put patient safety first. The resolution was introduced as a result of rising concerns among experts in the field regarding increasingly complex work environments due to a variety of internal and external factors. One of these factors is financial constraints which may result in inadequate or inappropriate pharmacy staffing models that interfere with pharmacists’ responsibilities for patient care. Pharmacists provide a variety of clinical services to patients including counseling, medication therapy management, and immunizations. Professional burnout is common among pharmacists and other healthcare professionals when unfair workloads interfere with their ability to render each patient the full measure of care as an essential health practitioner.

Senate Health and Welfare Committee hears report on the work of Tennessee’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia Advisory Council -- Approximately 120,000 Tennesseans suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease according to Commission on Aging and Disability Executive Director Jim Shulman. Shulman briefed members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on the work being done by the Tennessee Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia Advisory Council which was created as a result of legislation sponsored by Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) last year. The council is examining existing industries, services, and resources to address the needs of those diagnosed with the disease, their families, and approximately 439,000 caregivers.

For the Alzheimer’s and Related Dementia Advisory Council to gain an understanding of the strengths, challenges, and needs of persons living with dementia, their families, and other stakeholders, an initial needs assessment was conducted and used in the development of the Council’s initial Alzheimer’s and Related Dementia State Plan. The plan lists four overarching goals to help those affected by the disease. This includes improved education, greater support for affected persons and their caregivers, an adequately prepared workforce, and the need for additional research.

“Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that has affected the vast majority of Tennessee families directly or indirectly,” said Sen. Crowe. “It is a serious public health threat. Many families and friends sacrifice their time and resources to help their loved ones and we must ensure they have access to vital resources and support systems to assist them and improve their lives. This council is working to provide those diagnosed with the disease, their families and caregivers with the resources they need in battling this disease.”

The committee approved Senate Bill 1959, sponsored by Senator Crowe, which adds the executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability, a representative of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and a representative of the Tennessee Nurses Association to the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementia Advisory Council. These experts will give the council more in-depth experience to enhance their work.

It is estimated that more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. That number is expected to double by 2050.

Legislation encourages school districts to provide students with a wide variety of career-based experiences -- State Senators approved legislation on Thursday encouraging Tennessee school districts to provide their students with a wide variety of career-based experiences to help them make informed decisions about future careers. The legislation calls for more on-the-job training for students, as well as opportunities to build professional relationships and learn about workplace expectations. Examples are job shadowing, internships, and field trips to businesses. Senate Bill 1260, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), also encourages school districts to work with local industry to help facilitate these opportunities.

UT President Randy Boyd touts low college debt for students in University of Tennessee system—University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd announced during a budget hearing before the Senate Education Committee that 46 percent of college students at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, University of Tennessee Knoxville and University of Tennessee Martin are graduating college debt free. Boyd also spoke about the success of a new program implemented in the University of Tennessee system offering a UT Promise Scholarship combined with federal, state and other aid to cover the costs of tuition and mandatory fees for students with a combined household income of less than $50,000. Students must qualify to receive the Hope Scholarship to be eligible for the UT Promise scholarship.

Legislation repeals obsolete laws to help ensure government runs more efficiently-- The Senate took action this week to approve legislation to clean up Tennessee’s code by repealing obsolete laws and ensure government runs more efficiently. Senate Bill 1629, sponsored by Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), repeals the 1988 County Bounty Act which was intended to incentivize counties to pursue aggressive drug trafficking enforcement. This law called for distributing funds to counties based on their success in drug trafficking enforcement; however, no money was ever allocated to implement it. In similar action, the State and Local Government Committee approved legislation resulting from a study by their Oversight Subcommittee, which eliminates eight antiquated reports and improves two in need of repair. Senate Bill 1887, sponsored by Senator Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), modernizes various state and local government agencies’ reporting requirements. Both bills will now move to the floor to be considered by the full Senate.

Lottery helps 1.5 million students since its inception -- Over 1.5 million students have benefitted from Tennessee’s lottery since its inception 16 years ago. Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation President and CEO Rebecca Paul Hargrove told members of the Senate Education Committee this week that the lottery has raised $5.3 billion for education programs and $211 million for after school programs. Over a ten-year period that ended June 30, 2019, lottery education proceeds averaged a growth of five percent annually, compared to an industry standard of 3.5 percent.

Senate advances legislation increasing penalties for evading arrest -- The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week to strengthen penalties for criminals who evade arrest. The Spencer Bristol Act, sponsored by Senator Haile (R-Gallatin), would significantly increase penalties for evading arrest when a law enforcement officer is injured or killed in a pursuit involving a fleeing suspect. Currently, penalties for evading arrest on foot are far less stringent than those imposed for suspects fleeing in a vehicle. This legislation puts the crime of fleeing on foot and in a vehicle in parity. Under the legislation, if evading arrest results in serious bodily injury of a law enforcement officer, the penalty is increased to a Class C felony, punishable by three to fifteen years in prison. The sentence is increased to a Class A felony, punishable by fifteen to sixty years in prison, if the offense results in the death of a law enforcement officer.

In other action, Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) advanced legislation through the Judiciary Committee this week to crack down on those who flee an arrest. Senate Bill 1635 requires an offender evading arrest to pay restitution if he or she recklessly damages government property. The legislation clarifies that even if the damage is not done intentionally, restitution must be paid.

Legislation helps rural health clinics recruit doctors -- The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved legislation this week allowing rural health clinics to employ a physician. Current law prevents corporations from employing doctors due to a ban on the corporate practice of medicine with certain exceptions for hospitals, nursing homes, and federally qualified health centers. Senate Bill 1955, sponsored by Senator Ed Jackson (R-Jackson), will help recruit doctors to work in Tennessee’s rural health clinics and in economically distressed communities.

Senate Judiciary Committee approves legislation to clarify and strengthen Safe at Home Program – On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) to clarify and strengthen the state’s Safe at Home Law.  The law implemented a program housed in the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office to help victims of domestic abuse, stalking, human trafficking, or any sexual offense by protecting the confidentiality of their address. Senate Bill 1980 provides changes to make the program more efficient.  Approximately 124 participants are participating in the new program from 30 different Tennessee counties.  More information about the Safe at Home program can be found at sos.tn.gov/safeathome.

 

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